Summary: Contrary to stereotypes, Autistic individuals profoundly experience loneliness, according to new research.
The study found that sensory differences play a role in exacerbating loneliness in both Autistic and non-Autistic adults. Obstacles, such as restrictive sensory environments and financial inequalities, impede Autistic individuals’ social interactions.
The study stresses the importance of societal changes to accommodate various neurotypes’ sensory needs.
Rates of loneliness are up to four times higher in Autistic individuals than their neurotypical peers.
Sensory differences, especially prevalent in Autistic adults, significantly correlate with heightened feelings of loneliness.
Financial inequalities further compound loneliness in Autistic adults, limiting their social interactions.
Source: Swansea University
New research has revealed just how acutely Autistic people experience loneliness contradicting the stereotype that they avoid seeking meaningful social relationships.
Loneliness negatively affects physical and mental health in both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals and rates of loneliness are up to four times higher in Autistic individuals than their peers. Autistic people also have a greater vulnerability to the negative physical and psychological consequences of loneliness.
However, social environments often act as barriers, making it more difficult for people with higher levels of sensory differences to interact with others.
A new study, which has just been published by journal Autism in Adulthood, investigated Autistic people’s experiences and sought to not only quantify the level of distress associated with loneliness but also to provide a qualitative insight into Autistic adults’ loneliness.
The authors include Dr Gemma Williams, a public health research officer in the School of Health and Social Care. She said: “In the quantitative part of the study, our results indicate that sensory differences are related with higher loneliness and associated poor mental health in both Autistic and non-Autistic adults. This effect was exacerbated in Autistic adults due to a greater presence of sensory processing differences.”
For the qualitative part of the study, she collated first-hand reports from Autistic adults on intense loneliness and the obstructive role of sensory environments which refute stereotypes about Autistic adults lacking social motivation.
For example, one of the participants explained that where people live can have a big impact on their social interaction. She said: “The cost of transport in the city, it’s really quite expensive and prohibitive for some people. So, especially if people are out of work or in transient work or zero-hour contracts where they don’t know how much or how many hours they’re gonna get from one month to the next.”
During a cost-of-living crisis, meeting up for activities may be out of reach for many individuals, but Autistic people are especially vulnerable as they frequent experience financial inequalities relating not only to a lack of employment opportunities and support but also access to benefits.
Taken together, the research team’s two studies confirm that loneliness is significantly related to feelings of distress and poor mental health in both Autistic and non-autistic adults.
Moreover, experiencing sensory differences in a world that does not accommodate for variant sensory profiles may drive people to become increasingly isolated, contributing to feelings of loneliness.
One participant described the difficulties she had experienced in making friends: “Sometimes I have trouble having a conversation or to be understood because I don’t have the same thought process. Which makes it weird sometimes and people are wondering ‘what are you saying?’ or ‘I can’t understand what do you mean?’”
Another added: “I’m trying to reach out, I’m trying to find my people, but it all still feels a bit hopeless.”
As sensory differences are especially prevalent in the Autistic community, they may compound other societal, social, and affective factors, ultimately giving rise to higher numbers of loneliness and associated distress.
Dr Williams added: “Our research highlighted how painfully loneliness is often experienced by Autistic adults. We conclude that to enable meaningful and inclusive social interaction, a real societal effort is needed to create spaces that consider the sensory needs of all neurotypes.”
“I’m Trying to Reach Out, I’m Trying to Find My People”: A Mixed-Methods Investigation of the Link Between Sensory Differences, Loneliness, and Mental Health in Autistic and Nonautistic Adults
Background: Rates of loneliness are substantially higher among autistic compared with nonautistic individuals. This observation refutes the persistent stereotype that autistic individuals are not motivated to seek meaningful social relationships. More plausibly, social environments systematically exclude people with higher levels of sensory differences, impeding on opportunities for autistic individuals to form meaningful relationships. In this study, we sought to quantify the level of distress associated with loneliness (Study A) and provide complementary qualitative insight into experiences of loneliness in relationship to sensory differences in autistic adults (Study B).
Methods: In Study A, N = 209 participants completed a range of self-report questionnaires. In Study B, nine autistic adults took part in 10-minute unstructured dyadic conversations around the topic of loneliness. We derived a qualitative understanding of autistic individuals’ experience of loneliness, enriched by inductive and deductive analyses.
Results: In Study A, the autistic group showed significantly higher levels of loneliness, loneliness distress, anxiety, depression, and sensory reactivity. We found significant positive correlations between variables, but no group differences in differential relationships. The effect of sensory reactivity on anxiety and depression was mediated by levels of loneliness in both groups. In Study B, autistic participants described the pain of feeling lonely and socially disconnected, while simultaneously experiencing a need for restorative solitude after social overstimulation.
Discussion: Our results indicate that sensory differences are related with higher loneliness and associated poor mental health in both autistic and nonautistic adults. This effect was exacerbated in autistic adults due to higher levels of sensory reactivity. First-hand reports from autistic adults on intense loneliness and the obstructive role of sensory environments refute stereotypes about a lack of social motivation in autistic adults. We conclude that to enable meaningful and inclusive social interaction, a societal effort is needed to create spaces that consider the sensory needs of all neurotypes.